Barbara and Leonard Miller of Downers Grove, Illinois, realized a personal dream to aid “the poorest of the poor” when they committed themselves to sponsor the Godano Street Children Program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The program provides shelter, food and basic health care to abandoned children, victims of war, poverty and AIDS in the African country.
The aid program was founded by Mulatu Tafesse in 1996. Tafesse had survived an automobile accident, which he credits with changing his life. Severely injured and in a coma for eleven days, he had vowed that if he recovered and was able to walk again, he would dedicate his life to helping the poor.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a Vatican development agency based in New York City, was instrumental in getting the fledgling group off the ground. What was needed was major support and that was where the Millers were able to help.
Long-time friends of CNEWA, the couple gave a gift that they specified should go to the “poorest of the poor.” CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea, Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., was able to match them up with the child-care program.
In a recent telephone interview, Mrs. Miller spoke about traveling to Ethiopia to visit her daughter and son-in-law, Cindy Miller and Bart Hisgen, who were working as lay missioners there. Brother Pelletier arranged for her to tour Addis Ababa with a CNEWA driver. She observed firsthand children begging on the streets.
The city is a study in contrasts, she said. While the downtown section is built up, the outlying areas are primitive, with hard-dirt roads and rudimentary shelters. Toilet and cooking facilities are outdoors.
Mrs. Miller described her visit to Ethiopia as “stepping back into time. While the country is very beautiful, it is also very poor,” she said. Tafesse and his program are attacking poverty at the entry level: working with children, giving them basic job skills that let them develop self-esteem and prepare them for a constructive future.
“When you see where your money is going you want to give,” she said. She spoke about meeting Tafesse and described him as “outgoing, friendly, positive, a perfect salesman.”
The most vulnerable of any population in crisis are the children. This is the situation in Ethiopia, with hundreds of boys and girls living on the streets. The number of these children without homes seems to be increasing, Mrs. Miller observed, compounded by the AIDS epidemic that has orphaned many of the children and left many more infected by the virus.
The Godano program provides shelter for the boys during the rainy season. The girls receive eight months of shelter. All receive counseling and basic hygiene and health care.
More importantly, the children are taught money-earning skills. No job is too small for these children in this poor country.
Many of them run shoeshine stands and snack bars dispensing food and beverages to laborers and passersby. Wheeled metal stands allow the children to move them from place to place. The stands can be closed and locked while the children attend classes. The stands themselves are made in a machine shop on the grounds of Godano. The organization also gives the children small loans to help them get started in their own businesses.
Godano also sponsors stations providing potable water to poor families.
Tafesse, the father of three sons and two daughters, feels the female street children present a more serious problem, and there are many more girls in his shelters than boys. The destitute girls are often pregnant and have been abandoned by their families. Godano provides a separate home for these girls. While they are caring for their babies they are taught income-producing skills such as sewing, sandal making and candle making.
Barbara and Leonard Miller have been married 38 years and are members of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Darien. They have three children, Cindy, James and Joseph, and five grandchildren. Both are retired and actively support many charities in addition to CNEWA. They are especially interested in helping schools, hospitals, clinics and churches, particularly overseas.
They are often asked why they contribute abroad when there is so much need at home:
“We in the United States are blessed. Some other countries are not so blessed,” Mrs. Miller said. “Helping the countries that can’t help themselves is what we are interested in doing.” She also points out that money goes further abroad than it does at home. “Five dollars in Ethiopia buys a lot more than in the United States.”
She sums up her and her husband’s giving to the needy children in Addis Ababa. “You feel good when you’re helping someone. The children really need us.”